Chori chori chupke chupke

Tehelka aftershocks

Ever since the sensational sting operation, NDA seems to be still reeling in pain, even after a month and a half has passed by. The election rallies in the five states are thinly attended. The passers by comment in contempt: ye sab chor hain. All these are thieves – this impression is now deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the people, ever since their eyes remained glued to the TV sets on March 13-14 to watch the Tehelka expose, the real life crime thriller.

Bargaining for a reprieve in the Parliament to push through the Finance Bill, an enquiry by a retired judge, a few suspensions and resignations, lame excuses and unconvincing defences in some flop rallies, shunned by party workers and allies alike, protestations by Vajpayee himself that he would clean up the system even while stonewalling the demand for throwing out his PMO cabal – none of these seems to have worked. Far from the crisis being blown over, the BJP and the NDA, and even the political class and the bureaucratic and military establishment seem to have acquired a fundamental image problem. The ordinary citizen has concluded that the system is rotting from the core. The fast-buck epidemic, the cultural logic of globalisation, has seized of all those who wield power.

The damage to the NDA, the BJP and the entire Sangh Parivar is substantial and long-term. The secret eye of Tehelka has snatched away the little fig leaf of nationalism. For a few dollars more, the national security was on offer. Bangaru Laxman, the ornamental figurehead, who was supposed to rally dalits and Muslims to the saffron camp, became a masthead for political corruption. The George-Jaya duo, Socialists turned socialites, found themselves on the dungheap of history: poetic justice for perfidious treachery. Like rats fleeing a sinking ship, Mamata abandoned the NDA only to fall into the embrace of a waiting Congress, the past masters in corruption. Other allies, in consternation, were writhing like worms for the price they had to pay. The RSS hastened to disown its ‘failed swayamsevaks’. Some University this, whose alumni ask for dollars and act as fixers once in proximity to positions of power.

The tensions within the Sangh parivar are hotting up. The denunciation of the government’s policies by BMS hypocrites increases in its decibel level. Vajpayee dares the Sangh Parivar to openly ask for his resignation. Advani, hitherto keeping a low profile, has started slowly upping his ante. The search for some more scapegoats are on. The PM seems to be in no mood to relent. The PMO might be indispensable to the PM. The PM might be indispensable to the NDA and the BJP. But this government is in no way indispensable to the nation. Rather throwing out this crooks’ raj is the foremost task of the democratic movement so as to clean up the system. The battered regime might still have the right parliamentary numbers. But it has lost its legitimacy. It has reneged on its election promise of suraj. In a candid admission, the BJP has set for itself the impossible task of retrieving its lost image as a ‘party with a difference’. They are most welcome to do so after quitting the seat of power. The rubicon has been crossed. Even if the standoff within the Parliament is resolved and the leading players of the Opposition get back to their palace manoeuvres after the assembly elections, the democratic movement cannot go back on its demand that the government should quit. It can confront all other issues related with this anti-people and treacherous government only from this point of departure: Vajpayee government must go!

The key political players are concerned with the immediate end game being played out in the Parliament. The NDA is stonewalling the opposition demand for a JPC enquiry. The crooks who have held the national security to ransom are accusing the Opposition of holding parliamentary proceedings to ransom. Crocodiles are out in the media shedding tears at the disruption of parliamentary democracy. If some of the charges stick, then the Opposition would have only itself to blame. The disruption of proceedings inside the Parliament could have looked so natural, had there been a vibrant, popular movement against the corrupt and venal regime outside. With the real actors left out, the drama within the circular stage of the Parliament can only begin to look somewhat stretched. Even the newly formed People’s Front confined itself, by and large, to drawing room manoeuvres before TV cameras and missed out a golden opportunity to launch a people’s movement.

PHOTOGRAPHWheels of (mis)fortune

The magazines and TV channels are full of sob stories these days. About the middle class investors losing their hard-earned lifetime savings in the stock market. Casino culture has scorched their fingers. The same herd was led by the very same media into a bull-run not so long ago. Ever since the reforms began, the crash keeps occurring with periodic regularity. Only the names of the villians are different. There are minor changes in the script and modus operandi. And every time, a major scam surfaces. Of course, stock markets are a zero-sum game. Someone's loss would be somebody else’s gain. But the gainers are invariably a small group of brokers, bankers, corporates, bureaucrats, and even politicians and the losers are small investors. But, as it turned out, the gains are through dubious means.

Of course, the dotcom bust started much earlier, in the wake of the Nasdaq crash. The infotech shares too had started falling from their dizzy heights much earlier. But the post-Budget free fall had something fishy about it. Accolades were pouring in over Yashwant Sinha’s “Dream Budget—II”. The bank rates had been cut and the small savings rates had been slashed to push the small investors towards the stock market. The stock market index was expected to pierce through the roof. The industry may be down. So what? According to the principles of casino economy it only needs to hear loud cheers from the trading floor. But, contrary to the expectations, the index fell with a deafening thud. In four weeks of March, the notional loss of the investors was Rs. 1, 15, 889 crore. Values worth Rs. 4,000 crore vanished into thin air every day. Some of the leading scrips fell to one-hundredth of their value. Even those who had opted for relatively safe investment in mutual funds have had their fingers burnt. In a country where suicides by farmers and weavers make routine news, brokers and investors followed suit. The rudely jolted officialdom cracked its whip and ordered an enquiry. They found the villain of the piece, Ketan Parekh -- Harshad Mehta of 2001. Parekh found himself behind the bars. But soon a 'holy' nexus of brokers, fundmanagers, bankers, and regulatory buraucrats which systematically rigged the markets and enriched themselves at the expense of the unsuspecting small investors was exposed. Worse, the fence was found to be eating the crops. The regulators themselves were found to be birds of same feather colluding with the riggers.

Manmohan Singh might not have lost sleep over market volatility before the Harshad Mehta episode. But the government and the regulatory authorities seem to have slept soundly during all these intervening years. The ‘system failure’ remained what it was. To jack up stagnant industrial growth, the SEBI allowed limited forward trading. It permitted short-selling. It looked the other way at complaints of insider trading. Private banks, in the liberalised regime, stepped into bankroll the brokers in their speculative activities in the same manner as the public sector banks had done during Harshad Mehta’s time. Hundreds of crores were pumped in with bogus book entries and fake transactions.

One of the leading magazines has published a Rogues’ Gallery. Big names adorn the roll call of honour. First, there is DR Mehta, SEBI Chairman, who is accused of allowing “cabals of bulls and bears to use insider information and run amok in the market”, and allowing “Ketan Parekh and his group to rig share prices with impunity for over 18 months,” and later letting “the bear cartel trash the market despite a good budget.” Secondly, there is this Anand Rathi, president of Bombay Stock Exchange, who had a nice personal portfolio and used all the classified information he was privy to for enriching his own fortunes. Then there is this PS Subramaniam, the UTI chief, who is accused of working in tandem with Ketan Parekh by ploughing the public funds into the same rigged scrips and baling out the broker when necessary. Above all, there is SP Talwar, who is none other than Deputy Governor of RBI, who gave a wink of approval to private banks to fund speculative operations of brokers. Many other leading lights of the corporate world are reportedly involved in the racket. The middle class has been told stories that liberalisation would liberate the stock market from the clutches of a small band of speculators. Liberalisation or no liberalisation, they have their short-cuts to make fortunes at the expense of the small investors. Unfortunately, falling victims to the lure of the fast buck, many small investors have found their fast track to penury.

In high places

The stock market scam would not have come to light if a few brokers had not gone overboard in their enthusiasm to make a speculative overkill amidst the post-Budget euphoria. They had terribly embarrassed the political powers that be. Likewise, BP Verma, the chairman of the Central Board of Excise and Customs would not have landed into the CBI dragnet but for the adverse fallout of Tehelka. The badly bruised government wanted to show the people that it was determined to curb corruption. The man became a fall guy. The fact that people around him had connections with the Samajwadi Party made the task easier. The man who presided over the nation’s kitty and collected more than Rs.50,000 crore revenue from trade and industry was known to be thoroughly corrupt. He had vast discretionary powers to favour tax evaders to the tune of several hundred crores of rupees. And he did precisely that. The trade and industry too were quite comfortable with an obliging man at the top. He would have gone on to make millions and quietly retired, sharing his booty with his political patrons in appropriate percentages. But the nemesis struck. Tehelka had its collateral damage. The CBI raided 60 different premises – offices and homes of excise and customs officials. It was an empire of corruption. Mountain loads of incriminating evidence were recovered. But it was a patently one-sided affair. Not a single importer or industrialist was booked.

With people like Verma at the helm, the state of the morale of the nation’s revenue collection machinery is anybody’s guess. He best illustrates what is wrong with the nation’s high and mighty, the neo-rich elite. One need not wonder how such a scamster got to the top. It was precisely because he was so corrupt that he could pull the appropriate strings and made it to the top. Such is the logic of the system. Honest officers – and there are quite a few of them still left – seldom make it to such top slots these days. Verma’s case was not merely one of bribe-taking. It had all the ingredients of a third rate soap opera. Fixers, shady courier women from Uzbek, drug pushers, international narcotic traders, and smugglers – it is a sprawling network. The cancer has spread. The degeneration and debauchery of the new elite spawned by the new economy is now more or less generalised.

The reaction of the elite to Verma’s arrest was somewhat muffled. There was no outcry. In the media, no question was asked about the bribe-givers who had compromised the entire revenue collection machinery of the nation. No question was raised as to how one would stem the rot. Verma was taken to be an aberration -- an individual who made the mistake of not being careful and getting caught. The social roots of corruption show why it is difficult for the same elite to fight corruption. It has become their way of life and path of progress.

Verma represents something more than high-level corruption. He also symbolises the vast undergrowth of corruption that often descends to unbelievably petty levels. He personifies the culture of greed. He and his associates would be considered garbage in any civilised society. But they are honorable society men and women in India. Tehelka has shown the mirror to Indian “society”.

The million-dollar question is: how to fight this corruption? Anti-corruption drives undertaken by the agencies of the state, under pressure from public opinion, are selective and smack of political vendetta. Sensational exposes hog media headlines and occupy prime time slots, but only for a while. If public memory is short, media memory is shorter. Big politicians spend brief spells in five star jails during unending trials. No senior politician ever gets punished severely by any court for corruption. Finally, they all go scot-free. The society keeps debating whether a convicted criminal politician can still contest elections or not. When it comes to punishment, the system seems to be governed by some unwritten gentlemen’s agreement.

Since corruption has acquired a systemic nature, it remains a potent issue for a popular movement, for renewal of public and social life. If the anti-corruption issue has to go beyond being a political football and address the systemic nature of the issue, it can be done only through a popular movement. It is the hard-working people of India who have no stake at all in compromising half-way on the question of corruption.

Loot unlimited

It is a sign of the times if the country’s leading weekly newsmagazine has to devote cover stories of its four successive issues to one scam after another. The daily papers read like scandalsheets. The latest in the series of scams is the telecom scam relating to the controversial move by the government to allow private operators in basic services to provide limited mobile services through a new technology called Wireless Local Loop. With existing mobile phone companies up in arms and rivals within the government establishment having their axes to grind, the controversy is exploding in magazine covers and TV channels. The tired nation is simply dazed by all the finicky details. The needle of suspicion is however pointed towards the PMO, and the telecom minister, Ram Vilas Paswan.

The supermen in the PMO have been accused of violating every norm, flouting every rule and sidelining every official body to favour a few in an indecent haste. They have been accused of even bypassing the cabinet. The cynical onlooker would only ask what’s new about that. The entire story of telecom “reforms” in India is a saga of corruption in stages. Remember Sukh Ram with his currency bundles stuffed into sacks and stacked in his bathroom? Remember the stories of Rs.1400 crore changing hands on the eve of the elections during the earlier Vajpayee regime when it changed the license fee system to revenue sharing? Every step in telecom reforms was designed to rake in money. Interestingly, the man who started the crusade for telecom reforms is now ensconced as the Central Vigilance Commissioner. Instead of acknowledging that the reforms he had initiated have bred one scam after another and doing something about them with his new-found powers, he is now busy campaigning in favour of WLL. Such is the calibre of the watchdogs of the system. The WLL is the latest in the series. Every new technology provides them new opportunity for corruption. But this time the extraction of booty seems to be more politically centralised. The PMO is in the eye of the storm in what appears to be yet another case of corruption in high places.

High-level corruption is no isolated phenomenon. Liberalisation has thrown up India’s own mafia which has characteristics of both the entrenched Italian mafia and the upstart Russian mafia. In fact, this mafia had become the midwife of the market economy. The system runs fuelled by kickbacks to politicians and top bureaucrats in big deals. Corruption continues to remain one of the central agendas right from the days of Bofors. Rao had the dubious distinction of presiding over a cabinet where every member – including himself -- faced allegations of corruption. Even the ‘Humble Farmer’ owns benami star hotels in Bangalore. Vajpayee has his PMO, which has earned the reputation of being the fountainhead of corruption in a very short time. He thinks nothing of retaining a man as Finance Minister, whose Mauritian connections are legendary. It is common knowledge as to what kind of money circulates through that tax haven. Hawala scam showed in what ratio the political spoils were shared between the ruling party bigwigs and opposition leaders like Advani. The same man now justifies corruption in the name of ‘political fund-raising’ and asks what is wrong if the money is taken for the party. In the name of this perverse logic, there is a move for arranging state funding to political parties. This only means a portion of whatever escapes Vermas and manages to reach the state’s coffers would once again be ploughed back into the same corrupt hands. The tax evaded by the rich is more than what they actually pay. They have their bonds, floated in the name of India’s resurgence and redemption for money laundering. It is the tax money of the working population that would go to sustain the rotten system.

Capitalism and corruption are Siamese twins. Under economic reforms and globalisation the relationship is more apparent. When speculation becomes the primary means of making money and cheating becomes the first principle of business, scams can only be the order of the day. Politicians might get tainted and governments might fall, anti-corruption crusades might be undertaken, but the fact is that scams keep surfacing with unending regularity. At the surface level, they only reflect the contradiction between the big capital and the broad masses of Indian people, which is one of the basic contradictions of the Indian society. The struggle against corruption is thus part of the struggle against the new capitalism and globalisation.


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